It’s in the little gestures one learns much about a man, and such is the case with Emmanuel Macron. Since his anointment as president of France last month, the 39-year-old has held talks with Angela Merkel, Recep Erdogan, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Those tête-à-têtes have made the headlines but it’s what happened in Paris at the end of last month that demonstrated the steeliness of the youngest French president since Napoleon. As is customary for the head of state, Macron attended the final of the French Cup at the national stadium in Paris. There once was a time when the president of France was introduced to the two teams on the pitch before kick-off, but Nicolas Sarkozy dispensed with that tradition when he came to power a decade ago. He didn’t much fancy shaking the hands of 22 footballers to a cacophony of jeers, and nor did his successor François Hollande. Macron, on the other hand, isn’t a cat-call coward and he strode out to meet the players from Paris Saint-German and Angers. There was some booing, mainly from Paris fans aware that their president supports Marseille, but did Macron care? On the contrary, he posted a video of the occasion on his Twitter account.
Pantomime jeers from PSG fans apart, it appears that the French are falling in love with their new president, with the latest opinion poll predicting that La République en Marche! will win as many as 400 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly at this month’s legislative elections. In a further boost for the president, France’s 1.3m overseas voters have already cast their votes and his party came first in 10 of the 11 foreign constituencies. There’s even a new word to describe this adulation – ‘Macronmania’.
Admittedly, not all of France is aflutter at Macron. The far-left CGT union is promising street ‘mobilisations’ when the president begins to reform the country’s economic practices later this summer, and on Sunday morning in Marseille I witnessed a heated exchange between a gentleman handing out leaflets on behalf of La République en Marche! and a man who evidently won’t be voting for them on Sunday. ‘Macron is racist!’ yelled the man, impressively agitated for so early in the day. It turned out he was furious at a joke Macron had cracked on camera last week while visiting a a sea rescue centre in Brittany, a gag about the vessels used by migrants in their attempt to reach the French territory of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean.
A member of Macron’s entourage told the press pack that the quip was ‘not very fortunate’, but one wonders if it wasn’t a deliberate faux-pas. Macron isn’t the sort to be caught out by the media; everything he’s done since launching En Marche! 14 months ago has been meticulously planned, and a bawdy joke about migrants won’t have outraged voters who lean to the right. And having destroyed the Socialist Party during the presidential campaign, Macron now wants to do the same to the centre-right Republicains in the legislative election.
Similarly, he won’t have been displeased to read the newspapers reports last week describing the cooperation between French special forces and Iraqi troops to ensure that French nationals fighting for Isis ‘don’t return home’. While Britain apparently wrings its hands about infringing the human rights of its returning Islamic State warriors, France kill theirs at source.
So the man who was mocked by satirists for his boyishness during the presidential campaign, has in the last month gained a reputation for strong, bold and decisiveness leadership – impressing even Le Figaro, a vocal critic in the past, who recently described him as ‘Europe’s new leader’.
Heaven knows Europe – and the West – needs a strong statesman right now. Between them Donald Trump, Theresa May (assuming she’s still around by the end of the week) and Angela Merkel hardly exude an air of incisive, intelligent authority.
Which is why when Macron hosted Vladimir Putin last month, he wined and dined the Russian president at the Palace of Versailles, where exactly 300 years earlier Peter the Great – one of Putin’s heroes – had established strong diplomatic ties between the two countries. That didn’t stop Macron laying into the Russian media during a joint press conference, accusing them of smearing him with ‘untruthful propaganda’ during the French presidential campaign, but that won’t have bothered Putin. He bullies the weak and respects the strong, and his opinion of Macron was articulated by Alexandre Orlov, Russia’s ambassador to France, when he said: ‘He is a realist, a pragmatist, and I am sure that he will be a great head of state’.
We’re unlikely to see Macron posing topless à la Putin anytime soon but the pair share an unshakeable belief that they are men of destiny whose calling is to make their countries great once again. Macron, of course, will face many challenges in the years ahead, be they from Trade Unionists or Islamists, but the early signs suggest that after decades of corrupt or incompetent leaders, France may have found a president of which its people can be proud.